Friday, December 17, 2010

The Afghanistan Review

For Americans, anxious about the war in Afghanistan, there is not a lot of comfort or clarity to be found in President Obama’s long-promised strategy review.

For weeks, American officials have been talking about fragile progress, a small drawdown of troops starting next summer, and 2014 as the date when Afghans will take “the lead” for their own security. The unclassified version of the report released Thursday did not go any further, nor did President Obama in his remarks.

Part of the murkiness may be unavoidable. It has been a year since the president announced he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but the last arrived only last summer. It may be too early to know if the military gains claimed by the Pentagon since then are temporary or have a real chance of breaking the Taliban.

Reporting in The Times shows a very mixed picture. Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak reported on Thursday that the American offensive in Kandahar Province was turning local residents against the insurgents — at least for now — and undermining the Taliban’s morale and its ability to recruit fighters. The same day, Alissa Rubin reported that insecurity is rising in the north, where the Taliban are expanding their reach and local armed groups are terrorizing residents.

It is even harder to judge the administration’s claims about “disrupting and dismantling” Al Qaeda.

These things may be difficult to measure, but there is no excuse for the review’s failure to explain how the administration plans to deal with two of its biggest problems: Pakistan’s continued refusal to go after Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries, and the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government.

We understand the deep anti-American sentiments in Pakistan and the high strategic stakes. But we worry that the Pentagon is increasingly resigned to Pakistan’s inaction. American drone strikes may be inflicting real pain on Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but likely not enough. Pakistan’s army needs to do more to stop insurgents from crossing into Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s intelligence service must end its support and protection for the extremists.

Mr. Obama has to signal more clearly — to the Pakistanis and his own team — that American patience has limits.

The report, at least the public version, is even less frank about the myriad failings of the Afghan government and its erratic leader, President Hamid Karzai. Unlike Mr. Obama’s speech last December — when he said “the days of providing a blank check are over” — there wasn’t even an implicit warning to Mr. Karzai.

We know the administration got nowhere trying to bully Mr. Karzai. But private cajoling doesn’t appear to be any better. What is President Obama’s strategy for handling the Afghan president, or for empowering other more credible regional and local leaders? The report is silent on that, too.

When President Obama promised this review last December, he also vowed that America’s commitment in Afghanistan would not be open-ended. It may be too early to judge whether the strategy is working. But Americans will need a full accounting soon. Right now, they need a lot franker talk from Mr. Obama about what is really happening on the ground.
New York Times editorial

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